Friends of the Old Ship Meeting House



      The summer got off to an early start for The Friends of the Old Ship Meeting House. In mid-May the group organized a trip to New York City to see a replica of the Meeting House’s magnificent vaulted roof that has been the centerpiece of a gallery in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art since the opening of that exhibition space in 1924.

      Eleven people, including Friends and members of the Hingham Historical Society, enjoyed a tour of the recently renovated and reopened American Wing by assistant curator Nick Vincent, who described with great enthusiasm the Met’s stunning collection of replicated rooms – which often include actual materials and artifacts – from historic homes around the country.

      A goal of the renovation was to make the wing more accessible than it had been. That has been accomplished largely with the addition of a glass elevator, which whisks visitors quickly up to the third floor so that they might view the exhibition chronologically to better understand the development of American domestic architecture and interior design in the New World, from the late 1600s, when Old Ship was built, to the early 1900s, represented by the “Frank Lloyd Wright Room.”

      The Old Ship replica is an impressive accomplishment. Smaller than its inspiration, the roof nevertheless directs eyes upward to where one can appreciate the skill and devotion of the farmers who built the original in 1681. Constructed also of pine and oak its patina has the same warm glow. Most important it makes real for the Met’s legions of visitors a time scarcely thought of today and the continuum in which all Americans share.

      A wonderful outcome of the Friends’ trip to New York was the contact made with Amelia Peck, curator of American Decorative Arts at the Met, who with her husband recently visited Old Ship to see for the first time the real thing. Passing her hands over the sturdy beams that have held up the great roof for 328 years, Park marveled at the precision of these gently-curved supports and the numbers written on them so long ago by the builders so they would know where each went in the great edifice.

      For an onlooker, it was a joy to hear Park chat eagerly and knowledgably with Minister Ken Read Brown and Old Ship historian Marty Saunders about this treasure, which has been described on more than one occasion as “the most perfect example of early Colonial architecture in America.”

Built by local farmers in 1681, Old Ship is America's oldest wooden building in continuing ecclesiastical use, and the only surviving First Period New England meeting house. Framed in oak and pine, its two-story, clapboard structure sits high on a knoll on Hingham's Main Street, near the site where the Reverend Peter Hobart and his followers founded the town's first parish in 1635.

The Old Ship has been a National Historic Landmark since 1962, and recently gained additional recognition when a 2008 inspection by an architectural conservation team revealed what are believed to be the only extant 17th-century entrance doors in this country that survive in their original exterior entrance wall. Among the building's other defining exterior features are its square, hipped roof with balustraded deck, octagonal belfry and steeple topped with a 1731 weathervane, gabled front dormer, and gabled entrance pavilion with openings on three sides. Inside, box pews from the 18th and 19th centuries fill its gallery beneath a ceiling whose exposed oak framing bears striking resemblance to a ship's hull.

Hingham's most valuable and historically significant structure, the Meeting House is open for tours weekdays during the summer and by appointment at other times.

As a participant in and witness to American History since long before the Revolution, the Meeting House continues not only as a gathering place for its parishioners but for the larger community, which - as did the early settlers - frequently attends civic and cultural events there.

It is the Friends' mission to preserve Old Ship so that those who come after us can enjoy, take pride in, and learn from this antique treasure which has profound meaning for us all.

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Photos © 2008 Geoffrey Gross NYC from Old Houses of New England, Rizzoli, 2010

The Friends of the Old Ship Meeting House, a non-sectarian, non-profit charitable trust, was established in 1971 to raise funds from the community to maintain the Old Ship and to preserve it for future generations.